This time around the scenario was simulated, part of a competition. But there was more than a trophy at stake. The competition served as training, preparation for a time when lives would be on the line, when the threats and hostages would be real. The competition was tailored speciﬁcally for police officers, for the real situations they face, and it was conducted by the National Riﬂe Association.
When we think of the NRA, we often visualize the organization at the forefront of protecting our Second Amendment freedoms; the group that ﬁghts against the often absurd proposed legislation by elected officials who believe the government should be our only protector and that we don’t have the right to take on the responsibility to defend ourselves.
Unfortunately, because of this vital and public phase of the NRA’s work, the organization’s other programs can often go unnoticed. There’s the Eddie Eagle program on gun accident prevention geared toward children from pre-K through the 4th grade. About a million people attend ﬁrearms training courses each year that are taught by NRA-certiﬁed instructors.
The NRA has multiple programs for women, including Women on Target shooting clinics, Women’s Wilderness Escape and Refuse to be a Victim. There are youth education, training and competition programs. Add in the NRA’s gunsmithing schools, range planning services, the Hunters for the Hungry program that helps to feed the poor and the hunter safety programs that many states have adopted and you begin to get the idea.
But there’s more. To preserve our ﬁrearms heritage, the NRA also operates three museums in Virginia, Missouri and New Mexico that showcase historic ﬁrearms. When it comes to civilian competitions, the NRA sanctions about 11,000 shooting events, including 50 national championships each year. Shooting disciplines include air gun, muzzleloading, pistol, riﬂe and silhouette. While the media seems to seek out politically motivated, high-ranking police administrators on the side of strict gun control to interview for their reports, it’s been my experience that the average cop on the street is pro-gun.
THE NRA HAS BEEN PRO-LAW ENFORCEMENT since its inception. It created a special Law Enforcement Division in 1960 and has been active in training police ﬁrearms instructors and fostering police ﬁrearms competitions ever since.
Most police agencies have their own ﬁrearms instructors to train and requalify their officers, but who trains the instructors? Often, it’s the NRA. In fact, the NRA has trained and certiﬁed more than 55,000 law enforcement ﬁrearms instructors over the years. Currently there are more than 12,000 NRA-certiﬁed law enforcement ﬁrearms instructors across the country.
The NRA training is centered on the use of handguns, shotguns, patrol riﬂes as well as select-ﬁre and long-range riﬂes in tactical situations. Instruction is conducted both in the classroom and on the range. In recent years, military personnel and military contractors have also been trained in police tactics, as their roles sometimes include policing as well as combat missions.
Because maintaining a police agency’s ﬁrearms often falls on their ﬁrearms instructors, the NRA Law Enforcement Division often coordinates their training with the armorer schools of several manufacturers, including Heckler & Koch, Beretta, FNH, Glock and Smith & Wesson.
Police SWAT units normally train frequently, but time and money enter into the equation for the average cop on the street. As a result, many police departments conduct in-service ﬁrearms training and qualiﬁcations only once or twice a year.
Officers who want to train more frequently to increase their proﬁciency are often on their own, and the NRA helps ﬁll this gap by offering opportunities for officers to keep their ﬁrearms skills sharp through their numerous competitions.
POLICE PISTOL COMBAT (PPC) events are sanctioned by the NRA, and are open to full-time active law enforcement officers and, more recently, to military police. An officer doesn’t have to be a member of the NRA to compete. There are divisions for both semiauto pistols and revolvers and shooters are divided into various classiﬁcations according to their results in previous shoots.
The NRA also sanctions Tactical Police Competition (TPC) events across the country that require the use of actual duty guns and gear, as opposed to competition-speciﬁc “race” guns and holsters. These competitions are open to law enforcement officers, military personnel and private sector officers.
“The officers that participate in the Tactical Police Championships not only get to put their training to the test against other LEOs, but get to see where they can improve,” said Marc Lipp, the NRA Law Enforcement Division competitions manager. “This isn’t like competitions where shooters bring in customized guns and gear – they’re using the same gear they use in the line of duty.”
Each of these matches consists of four to seven courses of ﬁre for handgun, riﬂe, shotgun or combination of those. There are skill-based courses of ﬁre to test an officer’s handling proﬁciency and accuracy with a particular type of gun.
There are also scenario-based courses of ﬁre that place the officer in hypothetical situations that the officer has to solve. These courses of ﬁre might include assessing threat and nonthreat targets, shooting from various unconventional positions and making tactical decisions on how to move through the course using cover and navigating barriers, managing the available ammo, and ﬁnding the right balance of speed and accuracy.
“We aim to present scenarios LEOs would face on the job in order to accurately evaluate their skill level,” said Lipp. “It might be a competition here, but it could be a matter of life or death on the streets, and being able to respond to realistic situations is the best way for officers to train.”
These competitions can be eyeopening experiences for officers.
“The TPC is intentionally uncomfortable to navigate, and a lot of newcomers aren’t prepared for how challenging it is,” he said. “That’s good, because it forces the officers to face their training deﬁciencies head-on and make improvements in key areas. In the ﬁeld, they’re not getting commands from a range tower on how to solve a problem – they need to know how to approach ﬂuid scenarios in fractions of a second to deescalate potentially dangerous situations.”
THE NRA’S NATIONAL POLICE SHOOTING Championships will be conducted in Albuquerque, New Mexico, beginning September 16 this year. The national shoot is open to law enforcement professionals from around the world. Unlike other national competitions, there are no qualiﬁers or invitations needed. You compete against officers in your own classiﬁcation. Unclassiﬁed shooter can also compete.
So, the next time you get pulled into a debate with a gun-control advocate and the NRA is mentioned, you can help set the record straight. More than just a special-interest lobbying group, the NRA is deeply committed to ﬁrearms safety, training and competition, with special devotion to our nation’s police officers. ASJ
To learn more, visit the NRA Law Enforcement Division at le.nra.org.
I ﬁnally got the call.
“How fast can you get here?” Sgt. Santiago asked.
“Five minutes,” I said.
“Good. We have eyes on our guy, and we are a go.”
I drove as fast as I could to the designated rally area, where I joined more than a dozen men, many with beards (some fairly long) and long hair. None looked remotely like stereotypical cops, but all were “kitted up” and ready to go.
The group packed an impressive assortment of ﬁrearms, from MP5s, M4s and a Remington 870 to Glock 17s and a few high-end 1911s (one I recognized as an Ed Brown custom job). All of the guys were wearing body armor with riﬂe plates, and some had added ballistic helmets. There was no joking or laughing in the ranks.
Several team members eyed me with suspicion, and for good reason. I was being allowed to witness what most citizens will never see: the inner workings of an active special enforcement team (SET). These select groups of undercover detectives are tasked with gathering solid intelligence on drug activity to target drug dealers and users for criminal prosecution. In the case of some users, this insider knowledge will prepare them to become conﬁdential informants.
I asked permission before taking any recognizable pictures, but despite promising anonymity to the officers and their department for the sake of the mission and their security, several politely declined. Detective Blue, however, let me snap several pictures, and even smiled for a few. Others seemed to merely tolerate my presence, strategically turning their backs each time I raised my camera. But I understood. In an environment such as this, trust must be earned.
The cops assembled for this speciﬁc raid were a mix of SET teams from the city and county, and included detectives and special weapons and tactics (SWAT) members. High-tech equipment was already in place to monitor the targeted home in full high deﬁnition, so Sgt. Santiago would know if anyone attempted to enter or exit the house.
After a short drive, we reached our destination. The cops exited their vehicles with lightning speed, knowing exactly where they were going and who they were looking for. They were executing a rare “no-knock” search warrant, which exempted them from having to announce their presence prior to entering. The occupants had no idea that the hammer of justice was on its way.
The suspects were known heroin dealers, and in a city still reeling from four recent fatal overdoses, including a one-year-old baby who got into its parents’ stash, the mission had taken on even more urgency.
As the team swiftly mounted the stairs in a ﬂurry of motion, chaos appeared to take over, but appearances can be misleading. This mission was anything but chaotic to these professionals. In a moment, the door was demolished, and a well-orchestrated group movement was quickly executed, one that could have made a dance company jealous.
Within minutes, the targeted suspects were in custody, and the “all-clear” was given. No shots had been ﬁred, and no one had been hurt. Perhaps most importantly, some very dangerous people were led away in silver friendship bracelets to be questioned prior to being booked into the county jail.
A TOUGH BATTLE
All across the country, SET detectives such as these are ﬁghting a battle that is nearly impossible to win. It’s not a thankless job, but it can sometimes feel like it. For every dealer arrested, dozens more are waiting in the wings to take over. There is no shortage of people willing to sell dope to our families and children, and there seems to be no shortage of family members and children willing to buy.
“There’s a heroin tsunami coming,” one department captain told me. “It’s going to get much worse in the very near future.”
Following the raid, the adrenaline rush of the raid may have been over, but the real police work was just getting started. Any search for drugs and their accouterments is a tedious, time-consuming, messy and occasionally gross task. But these veterans have seen drugs hidden in all kinds of places, including shower-curtain rods and freezers, under mattresses, behind medicine cabinets, in heat registers on the ﬂoor, even inside kids’ rooms and toys. On this particular search, the SET team even took a ﬁre extinguisher outside to make sure it was what it appeared to be. No stone or piece of furniture goes unturned.
Users and dealers also hide drugs on their person. There are places on and in the human body where people are willing to hide drugs, and more than one person has died from an overdose using these foolish methods.
Once the evidence is collected, documented and bagged, it’s taken to a central evidentiary holding facility to be entered into computer system, ensuring a strong chain of custody.
This is the work life of a SET detective: observe, plan, observe some more, plan some more and chase what, at times, feels like phantom drug dealers.
DRUG OF CHOICE
The city where I’m embedded with this SET team is the embodiment of small-town America, but it is also a place where heroin has become the drug of choice, pushing meth and crack out of the way. Heroin makes its way into the U.S. primarily across our southern border, and many experts feel the opiate epidemic can be directly connected to opioid pills and the way they were marketed in the 1990s.
At one time, physicians were told that less than 1 percent of people who take opiates become addicted. According to author Sam Quinones in Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, Oxycontin was originally marketed by Purdue Pharma as a drug that was “virtually non-addictive.”
The drug cartels we read about or see on television are our neighbors. They are smart and well organized, making the SET detectives’ job even more difficult. Pursuing and investigating these businessmen and their businesses could be described as a high-stakes game of three-card monte, with the dopers dealing the cards. But this SET team continues the ﬁght, always with hope that just one break will help stem the heroin overdoses that seem to have permeated the community.
Most of the heroin in this small town is a variety known as Mexican black tar. Cultivated and processed on the Paciﬁc Coast of Mexico, black tar is rolled and manipulated into tiny balls, and then inserted into balloons. The least processed variety of heroin, because of its purity it is the most lethal. Depending on the region of the country, a black tar balloon will cost $10 to $30, and can keep an addict high for a few days.
Compared to opioid pain pills that can cost $1 per milligram on the street, heroin is a deal.
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER DEALER
Not long after returning to the office following the raid, Detective Noble, one of the senior SET detectives, received a call from an informant. A lady was looking to sell some meth, but the deal had to take place within 15 minutes. The office quickly turned into a beehive. Noble got into a buy car, an undercover vehicle only used for undercover drug deals, while the rest of us drove to different locations to set up a perimeter around the meeting point.
During the set-up, the dealer kept changing the location in hopes of ensuring that her client wasn’t a cop. I was out on the perimeter with Sgt. Santiago, listening via a receiver to what was happening inside the buy car.
Finally, the dealer approached Noble’s car and got in. She sold him 4 grams of meth for $120, but wouldn’t sell him the two balloons of heroin she had hidden on her person. When the take-down signal was given, all officers converged on the dealer as she exited Noble’s car right in front of her house.
The look on her face was priceless. She denied having sold drugs until Sgt. Santiago explained that the man in the car was a cop, and that we had heard the entire deal. Since she was on probation for other drug offenses, the team called her probation officer, who came out and helped with the search. The search yielded Oxycontin, morphine, Clonidine, meth, heroin and Oxycodone, and other pills and paraphernalia were collected and bagged as evidence.
A TEAM OF INDIVIDUALS
Later, I had the opportunity to speak with several members of the team, including Detective Polaris, who surprised me with his candidness and honesty.
“I’m not here to make enemies,” he told me. “I’d rather make friends. These people are going through tough times, and they need to know that someone cares. It doesn’t mean I won’t take them to jail. Sometimes that’s what they need, but my hope is that they ﬁnd a way out of the drug life.”
Detective Polaris relayed a story, with tears in his eyes, of saving a woman’s life as she tried to commit suicide. The woman had a three-month-old baby, and was able to see and hold her infant once she was safe and in the hospital. According to Polaris, the baby just stared and smiled at him and his rookie partner. The woman still calls Polaris to this day to thank him, and to provide an update on her life. “This is why I became a cop,” he tells me.
Detective Puller has been an officer for ﬁve years, and has been with SET for six months. A former active-duty Marine and now in the Army Reserve, discipline and service are his go-to attributes. He has a kind demeanor and a disarming smile. These qualities provide a unique ability to make suspects feel comfortable, and comfortable people talk.
The newest member of SET, Detective Gigante is a quick study in the art of interviewing a suspect. I watched him interview one on the street, and his calm demeanor kept the young lady talking until she had reached the point of no return. Gigante calmly showed her his phone and asked, “How do you think I got these texts?” The game was up, and the girl is now in the process of becoming a conﬁdential informant.
Others are more reserved and quiet. Detective Noble, who looks much younger than he is, tends to keep to himself. He’ll make small talk, but isn’t much on being interviewed. But you know that under his quiet exterior is a brain constantly at work, ﬁguring out how to stay ahead of his targets.
Sgt. Santiago is the “old man” of the bunch. He’s been a cop for more than 20 years, but remains in good physical shape and is a solid leader for his young group of detectives. There are no short cuts allowed on his team, and each process is done the right way. This includes everything from the way probable cause is acquired and writing search warrants to the gear he requires them to wear in the ﬁeld. He expects his men to wear full-body armor including ballistic helmets when entering a house for a variety of reasons, including one that is very personal.
“I hate delivering death notices,” he conﬁded. “And I refuse to deliver a death notice to the wife of one of my detectives because I let them forgo wearing their protective gear. The gear isn’t a 100 percent guarantee [on safety], but I won’t allow my guys to take that chance. There is no leeway or negotiation on this point.”
The years of working SET and other drug task-force assignments have taken a toll on Santiago. He has grown tired of seeing the worst that mankind has to offer. He would love nothing more than to open a beachside bar in the Caribbean, where he could make mojitos and scuba dive for the rest of his life. But that second career will have to wait. He still has a lot of police work left in him.
Other than Santiago, each SET detective will return to regular patrol after the four-year stint on the team is up. This way, the SET squad gets to train more officers on the ins and outs of the drug epidemic that continues to plague every city in this country.
Just because you haven’t seen the problem ﬁrst-hand doesn’t mean it does not exist. The opiate epidemic is growing worse by the day, with no end in sight. But thanks to leaders such as Sgt. Santiago and his dedicated team duplicated on police forces across the nation, it is a battle that will continue to be fought with commitment, knowledge and bravery. ASJ
Editor’s note: The names of the officers in this story have been changed to protect their location and identity.
STORY BY TROY TAYSOMIn 1947 the world was rebuilding after the most devastating global conflict we’ve ever known had ended. The importance of air power had been proven with the destruction of Tokyo, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Berlin and Hamburg. The importance of owning the skies above the battlefield led our nation to form a new branch of the military; on September 18, 1947, the United States Air Force was born.
AT THE END OF WWII, Major General Bennett E. Meyers, in charge of procurement, fell victim to one of the seven deadly sins – greed. He saw how much money was being spent and how little oversight was present, and took advantage of his position. An anonymous letter floated around the military and the FBI for years, written by a junior-ranking officer explaining what this general was up to. Legend says that the letter remained largely ignored because of unclear jurisdictional matters. The letter finally saw the light of day during Senate hearings, and exposed the inadequate system that the Air Force had for such investigations. In April 1948, this Senate committee made a recommendation: “A competent investigative unit should be established at once to act as a watchdog over the huge and continuing expenditure of public funds by that important arm [Air Force] of the military establishment.” OSI was formed with a three-pronged dictate: investigate fraud, criminal activity and perform counterintelligence.
AFOSI FUNCTIONS MUCH LIKE the FBI, but only within the confines of the mission of the Air Force. Special agents (SA) don’t wear uniforms and rank is hardly spoken of. AFOSI reports directly to the Inspector General of the Air Force, and is not beholden to base and wing commanders like all other Air Force personnel. It’s not because they are privileged or entitled; it’s to ensure a safety gap exists in the event that the base or wing commander is the one under investigation. This separation ensures that rank is not used to intimidate the enlisted agents as they investigate potential crimes.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the number one requested career field by newly commissioned 2nd lieutenants is pilot training. However, it may surprise some that the second most requested field is OSI. The amazing thing is that the field has less than 3,000 agents and just over 300 of those are officers. The majority are enlisted personnel, followed closely by civilians.
SAs go through a rigorous selection process that includes an exhaustive background investigation, an in-depth polygraph and then basic federal agents’ school in Glynco, Ga. After basic training, the SAs split off into their own OSI academy to learn the capabilities and pillars under which OSI operates. According to OSI, their cornerstones are:
• Vigorously solve crime;
• Protect secrets;
• Warn of threats;
• Exploit intelligence opportunities;
• And operate in cyberspace.
AGENTS HAVE A PLETHORA of weapons they use in the field. From the early 1950s until the late 1970s OSI agents carried .38 Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special (which was renamed the Model 36) 3-inch revolvers. In the late 1970s, OSI decided to switch to the M1911A1 .45 ACP. They acquired surplus guns that the Navy had deemed unserviceable and customized them. The barrel and slide were shortened by three quarters of an inch and the frame by a half inch. The shortened frame required a custom-made, six-round magazine. Many agents praised the change to a better caliber, but the gun was plagued with slide cracks, failures to feed, as well as stove-pipe failures, according to one retired agent I spoke with. It is estimated that it only cost the Air Force $100 per gun to make changes to the .45s, making the project highly economical.
The Colt proved to be a good stop-gap between the old 3-inch .38s and the new 9mm adopted by the armed forces in 1985. Not long after the military adopted the Beretta M9, OSI started issuing them to the SAs. The M9 was liked by many and hated by probably just as many. For an OSI agent the biggest issue was concealability. The M9 was not designed to be carried as a concealed firearm. It was a battlefield back-up gun. OSI needed something more in line with their missions, including undercover investigations and protective details.
Ultimately OSI adopted the Sig Sauer M11, or P228 in civilian terms, just like US Army pilots and other aircrews. However, in November 2015, the AFOSI commander, Brigadier General Keith M. Givens, announced a new weapons policy, which allowed SAs to carry privately owned weapons (POWs) as long as they are on the list of 27 approved models. Brig. Gen. Givens explained, “One of the main driving forces behind this change was the desire to provide each agent the option to employ a weapon that best suits their individual body type and hand size for preference and concealment concerns. Now, OSI Special Agents will have that flexibility.”
Agents are also trained with the Remington 870 and the M4. Agents who deploy in counterinsurgency rolls have the chance to qualify with other weapons like the M203, M240 and M249.
Agents working protective details have used everything from Remington 870s with a folding steel stocks to Uzis and MP5s, depending on what part of the world they are in.
Once and SA has completed training they are assigned to a detachment somewhere in the world to undergo their probationary period. During this time a more senior SA will work with them on criminal investigations, including fraud, narcotics, sexual assaults, murders and any other serious felonies that present themselves.
AFOSI HAS A REPUTATION of working closely with their civilian counterparts. One famous incident involved three airmen from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The airmen robbed a hi-fi-type store in Ogden, Utah, a town close to the base. During the robbery they held several people hostage and committed heinous crimes, including forcing some to drink liquid Drano in hopes of killing the witnesses. When this didn’t work they shot each of the hostages. One man still didn’t die and they resorted to kicking a pen into his ear and choking him – he lived and crawled outside where he was found. A tip from a fellow airman led police to Airman Dale S. Pierre, then 21 years old, and Airman William Andrews, age 20. Evidence was recovered from a dumpster next to the base and with the help of OSI, a search warrant was issued and executed in the barracks. The stereo equipment was recovered, and the two stood trial and were convicted on multiple felonies including capital murder. Pierre was executed in 1987 and Andrews in 1992.
Former SA Nathan Sessler told me that during his time at Pope Airfield, N.C., he worked closely with the Fayetteville Police Department to learn more about street gangs. Street gangs wouldn’t seem to be a problem in the Air Force, but SA Sessler pointed out that the military is a microcosm of society – if society has it, the military has it too, just on a smaller scale. With his new training he was able to identify members within the Air Force and get the local police to verify gang membership.
In Texas, OSI found that members of the “Bloods,” a known and violent gang, had joined the Air Force and were working in the post office on base, using it to smuggle and transport narcotics.
OSI has always excelled at investigating fraud. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a chief master sergeant stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., was investigated for stealing flight-line generators and using them to help high-ranking officers build summer cabins in the countryside.
At around the same time a master sergeant working in a supply supervisory role was caught using government funds to furnish his private rental units. The investigation uncovered $200,000 worth of ill-gotten furniture, fixtures and equipment in his apartments.
DURING MY INTERVIEW with SA Sessler he mentioned a case where a topographical-map printer, valued at $13,000, was stolen from an air evacuation medical unit. The printer didn’t turn up until the spouse of an airmen was involved in a domestic battery. She told his commanding officer and police that her husband had stolen a printer from his squadron. SA Sessler went to the home to investigate and located the printer. What came next shocked the seasoned OSI veteran. The wife casually asked, “Would he (the husband) be in trouble if he had stolen other stuff from the Air Force?” “Yes, ma’am,” responded Sessler. She led him to the couple’s three-car garage that was packed floor to ceiling and wall to wall with stolen and misappropriated merchandise. The man was an E-7 with 19.5 years of service and was a unit purchaser with a no-limit government credit card. He showed his subordinates how to reconcile the books by simply selecting the approve-all button in the software. In 18 months the master sergeant had stolen $392,000 worth of material. His subordinates were charged with dereliction of duty and he received an eight-year imprisonment, loss of rank, forfeiture of pay and a bad-conduct discharge.
OSI has also jumped into the world of computer crimes as well as counterinsurgency. These crimes include everything from attempts to steal sensitive data to child pornography. SA Sessler was one of the agents who got a confession from an E-6 who had been creating and distributing child porn while stationed in the US. He was arrested at Pope AFB. Airman Nathan Wogan was sentenced to life in prison, thanks to the efforts of AFOSI agents like SA Sessler.
UNTIL 9/11, OSI WASN’T HEAVILY involved in counterinsurgency. During the war on terror many OSI agents were sent to the front lines to work human intelligence (HUMINT). This is no different than working narcotics cases with informants and insiders. In fact, OSI was able to get one of the most prolific improvised explosive device (IED) makers in southern Iraq off the streets. Several SAs had been discussing problems they were having in the area with IEDs. One of the agents suggested they work the case just like they would for narcotics. They did and worked their way up the ladder, so to speak, and were eventually buying directly from the IED maker, ultimately taking him into custody. After the operation, the number of IEDs in that area dropped to nearly zero.
In December of 2015, four OSI agents were killed doing counterinsurgency work in Afghanistan. Even though they are not considered front-line units like Rangers, Special Forces, SEALS and Delta Force, the job that OSI agents do is vitally important to the safety of our air assets and the lives of those who serve in the Air Force. Make no mistake, however, theirs is a dangerous job and always will be.
In OSIs 68-year history, they have lost 14 agents in the line of duty – four in that single day in 2015. ASJ
Editor’s note: Next issue, in part II of this series, we will profile other very important USAF law enforcement agencies that protect military assets and help keep our country safe.
Author’s note: Special thanks to the following retired OSI agents for their tremendous help with this article: Mike Brunson, Steve Rivers, Nathan Sessler, Michael Taysom, Bill Yurek and many others.
Story by Troy Taysom • Photographs by Laurie ReyesPolice officers deal with a variety of people and problems daily. Some of the problems are self-inflicted, others are the result of genetics and some simply have unknown origins. Misidentifying a problem is an all too common occurrence in law enforcement. A person approached by officers may suffer from mental illness, a genetic disorder like autism or even a disease like Alzheimer’s, which renders them incapable of following simple commands.
These types of encounters have had really bad outcomes in the past. An officer may mistake a person with autism for a noncompliant individual, or a person with mental illness for a drug abuser. What many people don’t realize is that these individuals are less than capable of following commands because of their disorder, not because they are defiant or high. This shift in thinking is saving lives, careers and creating a cohesive bond between cops and citizens.
Laurie Reyes of the Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) in Maryland, is the leading advocate for this paradigm shift. To understand Reyes one must first be able to comprehend selflessness, dogged determination and unconditional love. If these concepts don’t register, then stop reading, because you will never understand her. If, however, you know what it’s like to fight uphill battles, deal with heartache without quitting and love those who are misunderstood and ostracized, then you will love Reyes and her story.
Since the age of five, Reyes knew she wanted to be a cop and nothing less would do. She loved everything about cops; the cars, the lights, etc. And helping those in need was programmed into her DNA. She never wavered from her goal of becoming an officer, and after completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland, Reyes was hired by the MCPD.
Reyes spent seven years in the patrol division before being assigned to special operations. Her job with within this department was to oversee Project Lifesaver. Project Lifesaver is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose stated purpose is “(t)o provide timely responses to save lives and reduce potential injury for adults and children who wander due to Alzheimer’s, autism, and other related conditions or disorders.”
Officer Reyes has been working to integrate this project into the MCPD for the past 10 years. The program provides tracking bracelets for adults and children who are predisposed to wander or elope, due to cognitive disorders. The bracelets are trackable by air up to a couple miles away. While a wonderful tool for caregivers and police, the bracelets don’t address perhaps the most serious issue and that is an officer’s interaction with people suffering from a cognitive disorder.
Cognitive disorders are not mental illnesses. The autism spectrum, while it affects the brain, is not a mental illness like depression, anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder. Because of this officers need to understand how to identify and, more importantly, approach and interact with a someone who has autism. This is where Reyes comes in.
Reyes has worked tirelessly to create a program that teaches officers to recognize autism and understand the intricacies of interacting with these people. The normal procedures for dealing with a citizen will not work with a person with autism. In fact, standard practices could potentially escalate a situation. This can be confusing not only to the citizen, but for the officer as well.
Fortunately, Reyes has spent countless hours studying and learning about autism, and its potential effects and manifestations. Speaking with her, I found that she is well versed in the subject and its unique challenges. My wife works in special education and I have learned a great deal from her about those who suffer from cognitive disorders, especially autism, and she helped me put together questions for this interview. It was extremely helpful to have an assistant who helped me understand Reye’s answers.
Children with autism have what Jake Edwards, a young man with autism – more about him in a moment – calls his “super powers.” These powers tend to be heightened senses, especially hearing and touch. Many autistic people are sensitive to loud noises such as music, crying babies, yelling and sudden loud sounds. These can trigger the child to act out in an attempt to stop the noise, and at times the actions can be violent. They are also very sensitive to touch, both being touched and needed something to hold. Simply touching a child with autism may also lead them to be violent, but on the other hand, they can be calmed when given an item such as soft toy, a string of beads or a textured ball to hold. This need for holding or touching an object is called sensory.
Reyes understands all of these issues and has started training the officers of the MCPD to approach situations in a different manner. She wants the officers to think, “Could this be autism? Would a bag of skittles work better than going hands on?” Give simple commands, in a calm voice, and allow the person time to process what is being asked. At no time, however, is officer safety to be compromised, but children with autism respond differently, and this difference must be accounted for.
It isn’t just the police that Reyes works with; she is also involved with the parents and primary caregivers, and helps them get identity bracelets (different from the tracking bracelets), which help officers immediately identify a person with autism. With the help of their parents, children are encouraged to approach police officers in public and show them their bracelet.
Reyes has also had bright yellow T-shirts made that she gives to caregivers and parents. These shirts identify the child as having autism and says, “If I’m alone call 911.” It also has the MCPD badge on the back with the same admonishment. These shirts have helped dozens of children who eloped and were later found by citizens. They are only given to the children that are prone to eloping, are nonverbal and a danger to themselves. Many of them are resistant to wearing the bracelet because of their sensory issues.
This job has given Reyes some of the highest highs and lowest lows that one can experience in police work. She told me of a young man whom she had worked with when he lived in Montgomery County. The boy had autism and was nonverbal. The conditions he lived in were deplorable. Reyes lost contact with him when he moved to a neighboring county, but some months later officers from the MCPD found him. They identified his bracelet, called Reyes and said, “Hey, we have one of your kids down here.” The scene was horrific; the young boy was carrying a bedpost to which he was chained and locked. He had somehow broken the bedpost away from the rest of the bed and walked several miles back to Montgomery County.
Reyes told me, “This crushed me to the core.” I could hear the sadness and anger in her voice as she relayed the story. She still keeps and shows officers the dog leash and padlock used to hold him, but she says, “Jake Edwards makes it all worth it.” Who is Jake Edwards? According to her, “Jake will change the world.”
Jake is a young man with autism. He is a vocal, self-advocate who was recently named the ambassador for Autism Night Out in Montgomery County. At this year’s event Jake gave a speech in front of a crowd of hundreds of people. The speech, which can be found on YouTube, was moving. So moving, in fact, that it brought 38-year law enforcement veteran Chief J. Thomas Manger of the MCPD, to tears. Very few in attendance had a dry eye when Jake was finished speaking. Do yourself a favor and watch the speech – you’ll be a better person for it.
Jake’s vibrant personality, along with his indominatable spirit, makes him the perfect person to represent those with autism. Reyes’ plan is for Jake to speak directly to recruits in the police academy, giving them a chance to speak and deal with a person who has autism in a safe, controlled environment. Education is really the key when it comes to understanding these people.
Reyes will be the first to tell you that she does not, and could not, do this alone. Caregivers, like Jake’s mother, Jenn Lynn, are Reyes’s number one supporters. She is also supported by her colleagues like, Officer Tara Wimmer and Paula Aulestia, an amazing volunteer who works closely with Officer Jason Huggins, a search and rescue unit coordinator, as well as all of the officers that belong to this specialized group.
Officer Reyes was quick to point out that her husband Tarik and their sons have been supportive of her career in law enforcement too, especially her work with Project Lifesaver. Her parents, Roger and Dee Nelson, actively support Autism Night Out, passing out pizza and greeting everyone with their infectious smiles. The approach: get everyone involved and the kids become the winners.
Simply put, Reyes’s job is to save lives. She works assiduously to make sure that all officers’ interactions with people who have intellectual developmental disabilities are safe and nonviolent. Thirty years ago people with autism were hidden away and forgotten by society; today they are living productive lives. This dramatic turn of events would not be possible without people like Reyes and all of the dedicated, loyal caregivers and educators who work with these children and adults on a daily basis.
Chief Manger of the MCPD told me, “Officers like Laurie Reyes are the heart and soul of our police department. Her work in the community has made us better at what we do. Among everything she has done, putting on the police department’s Autism Night Out event is amazing, and one of my favorite nights of the year!”
It’s not just the chief who admires Reyes. Jenn Lynn said, “Officer Reyes means a future for our children. I’m less scared about my child’s independence, knowing Officer Reyes is leading our county and the country in autism education for all officers. Her heart is gold, and her efforts tireless. She is devoted to our children and saves lives every day.” ASJ
Editor’s note: To learn more about autism and how to get involved in your community go to autismspeaks.org.
Posted in Law Enforcement Tagged with: Autism Night Out, Autism Spectrum, Autismspeaks.org, Behind The Badge, Chief J. Thomas Manger, Cognitive Disorders, Intellectual Development Disability, Jake Edwards, Laurie Reyes, Law Enforcement, MCPD, Officer Jason Huggins, Officer Tara Wimmer, Paula Aulestia, Project Lifesaver, Troy Taysom
I recently sat in a meeting with John King, Chief of the City of Provo, Utah, police department, and a recorded 911 call was played for us. The caller was sobbing uncontrollably and it was impossible to understand what they were saying. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it took me 30 to 45 seconds before I really even knew what was happening. It was stressful; I knew the caller needed help, but I didn’t know what kind and I was stunned that the 911 operator could figure it out. The dispatcher was calm and deliberate with her questions and her statements.
“Hon, you need to take a deep breath and tell me what is happening?” I heard the dispatcher say. “Sweetie, I can’t understand you. Can you tell me if the person is still there?” She went on, “It’s going to be OK. The officers are almost there, don’t hang up no matter what, even if you have to stop talking, don’t hang up.” The call lasted a short eight minutes; it felt like it went on for hours.
I can’t dwell on a past emergency, that would interfere with the next call.
After hearing this I decided that I needed to meet the people who choose a job where they constantly speak to people in crisis. No one calls 911 to give good news. The dispatchers answer the phone having no idea what they are about to hear. I’ve lived a long time and seen some bad things, but what I have experienced in 47 years is what a 911 dispatcher hears in a month.
I sat down with the training supervisor for Provo City PD’s dispatch center, Gen Pratt and Lieutenant Brandon Post, the lieutenant in charge of dispatch, to find out what makes these support personnel tick, and how they handle such a stressful job.The dispatch center has a staff of 21 people, with a budget for 24. According to Pratt and Post, the dispatch center is rarely staffed to the allotted 24 people. They have a very difficult time hiring people, and when they do, chances are that they will not make it through training. The turnover rate is higher than that of the people that they support – police, fire and paramedics.
Provo City has had its own dispatch center for 20 years now, and in that time only one dispatcher officially retired. Lt. Post said that less than one percent of hires will retire from the dispatch center – the turnover rate is astronomical. The emotional distress that comes from working with the city’s crisises cannot be quantified, but plays a significant part in the turnover rate.
These quiet and dedicated support warriors pay a high price for their desire to make a difference.
The center in Provo fields 150,000 calls per year. With a staff of 21 people that means that each person takes approximately 7,143 calls per year. That is close to 27 calls per day, per person. That is an amazing number, especially when one considers that these aren’t your Sunday afternoon calls to grandma.
After the interview, I listened to the dispatchers, whom were all women, take calls. At one point everyone was on a call or dispatching. They worked in sync as if they were one person. I had no idea what was happening; everyone was speaking, radio traffic was crackling and the clacking of keyboards was coming from what seemed to be every direction. No one, besides me, got flustered or stressed. These five women just kept talking and somehow communicating with each other. When it finally slowed down, the ladies went back to talking to each other about their plans for the weekend or what their kids were doing. I was in shock; my head was still swimming, trying to figure out what had just happened.
I asked Pratt if calls ever disturbed her. She said, “Not really.” She had learned to treat each call as an in-the-moment experience, and when the call ends, she moves on. I asked her about closure, or wanting to know the disposition of calls that she receives. Pratt said that she can’t dwell on calls and wonder about what has or hasn’t happened. That would interfere with the next call. She did say that there have been calls which have created lasting memories; her first fatality call and her first baby-not-breathing call after returning to work from maternity leave. Both of these calls have stuck with her during for her 11 years at dispatch. This tenure makes her one of the veterans.
When all is said and done, these quiet and dedicated support warriors pay a high price for their desire to make a difference. Burnout is common; retirement is not. Stress is customary and emotional punishment the norm. Recognition is almost unheard of; not because they haven’t earned it, but because so many of us simply don’t think about them – until we need them! ASJ